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What Is Lucid Dreaming & How Can We Practice It?

May 29, 2020

What is Lucid Dreaming?

Have you ever waken up in your sleep only to find out that you were actually still asleep and dreaming? Lucid dreams are the “phenomenon of becoming aware of the fact that one is dreaming during ongoing sleep” (1). 

It means that you are an active member of your dreaming experience and can also potentially change outcomes in your dreams.  It appears that you are in a different level of consciousness than when you are having non-lucid dreams or when you are completely awake—you are physiologically asleep, but your mind is aware. 

Another way to view it is that they are a state of consciousness between wakefulness and non-lucid dreaming.  In brain imaging, it appears to show features of both a waking state and a non-lucid dreaming state (2). 

Lucid dreams have been described and documented even in ancient European and Asian cultures, but it wasn’t until 1913 that Frederik Van Eeden, a Dutch psychiatrist, coined the term (1).  

What Happens During Lucid Dreaming?

Researchers were still skeptical of the true existence of lucid dreaming until the 1970s and 1980s, when studies began to verify that lucid dreamers were in fact lucid.  Now, we know that up to 55% of people have experienced a lucid dream in their lifetime, and 23% experience lucid dreams at least once a month (3). 

What are some of the physiological differences we can see during lucid dreaming vs non-lucid dreaming?

  • Increased heart rate and respiration rate
  • Lucid dreaming can occur during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, and usually occurred later in the night or early in the morning. 
  • Differences in brain wave features shown on EEG (electroencephalogram) compared to non-lucid REM sleep (1). 
  • Noticeable “Hybrid state of sleep” – some features of REM sleep and some features of the waking state in certain parts of the brain (2).

There is some debate, however, about whether there are consistently predictable changes in non-lucid versus lucid dreaming.  It is believed that the subjective nature of lucid dreaming interferes with the discovery of consistent EEG changes.  For example, the changes in EEG output could vary with the vividness of the dream as well as the dreamer’s memory, emotional state, insight, self-consciousness, and level of experience (1).

Lucid Dreaming, sleep meditation, guided meditation

What Do We Know About Lucid Dreams?

ONE: They appear to take place during REM sleep cycles.  This means that those who have better REM sleep are more likely to be able to have and sustain lucid dreams—this includes people who have narcolepsy (1). 

TWO: For some reason, the phenomenon appears to be easier to elicit when the subject is at home versus a lab setting (2).  There’s a lot of speculation about this, but it is possible that it could be related to a number of factors:  stress, impaired sleep routines, being in an unfamiliar environment, etc. 

THREE: It appears to have some therapeutic benefit.  Therapists have begun using lucid dreaming as a tool to help their patients with certain mental health conditions (ie PTSD, nightmares). 

FOUR: Lastly, those who meditate appear to be able to have more lucid dreams compared to non-meditators (4).   Knowing what we know, we can develop strategies that can help people have lucid dreams.

Lucid Dreaming, sleep meditation, guided meditation

Is Lucid Dreaming Worth All the Hype?

Research surrounding the topic of lucid dreaming is still somewhat in its infancy.  Since lucid dreaming was first verified in the 1970s, researchers have been focused on finding out whether lucid dreaming can be induced or taught. 

Turns out it can! Plus it was found to be a potentially beneficial skill in several ways:

  1. Fewer NightmaresLucid dreaming appears to decrease the frequency and intensity of nightmares.
  2. Increased Performance: Lucid dreaming has also been studied in athletes.  There is some evidence that it can help improve motor skills, allow athletes to explore certain physical skills without risking real injury, and potentially help them acquire new skills.
  3. Enhanced Creativity: The effect of lucid dreams on creativity and problem solving has been hypothesized as well, where one can ask a character or figure for advice (6). 

There is a seemingly endless amount of potential applications for lucid dreaming, but there actually hasn’t been a ton of new research in the last decade due to the difficulties in maintaining a controlled and objective environment and some technological deficiencies. 

As new technology emerges and knowledge of what is really happening in the brain during lucid dreaming is clearer, new investigations around the applications of lucid dreaming will likely emerge.

Lucid Dreaming, sleep meditation, guided meditation

How Can We Practice Lucid Dreaming?

If you’re eager to start experiencing some lucid dreams, you’re in luck!  Lucid dreaming is a learnable skill and various methods of inducing lucid dreams have been studied over the last few decades.

A double-blind RCT involving 24 volunteers with no history of lucid dreaming was published in 2014 that suggests you can produce lucid dreams using a 30-second-long 40 Hz electrical signal through electrodes placed at strategic locations on the scalp.  Interestingly, participants experienced lucid dreams 77% of the time when stimulated with the electrical signal. 

Though research in the dream realm is still in its infancy, a team at MIT’s Media Lab known as the “Dream Team” thinks you can harness your unconscious mind with tech you can wear to bed (including our very own Muse Devices):

 

Despite the fact that many of the studies done on initiating lucid dreams also use external stimuli like sound, light, or touch, there are still some things you can do on your own. 

Since lucid dreaming is the awareness that you are in fact dreaming, most of the suggestions on how to gain lucidity in your dreams revolve around increasing overall awareness, whether waking or asleep.  Here are some of the basics to get you started.

  1. Record your dreams.  Keep a pen and notepad or a journal beside your bed so that as soon as you wake up, you can write down everything you remember about your dreams.  So often we wake up and can only recall details of our dreams for a minute or two.  Writing your dreams down will help build awareness of your dreams in general.
  2. Practice good sleep hygiene.  Since lucid dreaming mostly occurs during REM cycles and most often not until the later parts of the night, it’s important to make sure you do everything to improve your sleep quality.  Start winding down an hour before you go to bed by turning off all your screens.  Avoid excessive caffeine, alcohol, and other sleep disruptors.
  3. Try the MILD technique.  Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreaming (MILD) was coined by researcher Stephen LaBerge.  Simply put, it refers to setting an intention to remember to do something.  Start by remembering a past dream (ideally one that you have just awakened from).  Try to identify a “dreamsign,” or something in your dream that helps you realize it was a dream.  Then, visualize returning to the dream, practice recognizing this dreamsign, and mentally affirm “The next time I’m dreaming I want to remember to recognize what I’m dreaming” (5).  This is a lot easier said than done and requires a lot of practice!
  4. Meditate.  Research shows that compared to those who do not meditate, those who do have a regular meditation practice.  We’ll get more into this later.

How to Lucid Dream

Meditation & Lucid Dreams

Remember how we said that lucid dreaming has been described in some ancient cultures?  Well, it turns out that there is a Tibetan Buddhist tradition of Dream Yoga”, which refers to a set of practices “for experiencing the continuity of conscious experiences across dreaming and waking states, for cultivating lucidity during dreams, as well as using lucid dreams as a platform for meditation practices during dreams and sleep” (4). 

Other groups who practice various forms of meditation appear to benefit as well.  In the Zen Buddhist tradition, there is anecdotal evidence of increased frequency of lucid dreams after meditation practice, and those who practice transcendental meditation reported more frequent lucid dreams compared to non-meditators (4). 

> Did you know? In one 2018 study, 48.6% of non-meditators reported never having a lucid dream compared to only 23.6% of long term meditators.  About 13% of meditators reported having more than 1 lucid dream a week compared to 5% of non-meditators (4).

There is some disparity in the research about exactly how long you have to have a consistent meditation practice for, or how many meditation hours you have to log in before you are more able to have lucid dreams. 

> Key Takeaway: a consistent meditation practice significantly improves not only your ability to have lucid dreams, but also increases the frequency at which they can occur.  

 

Can Muse S help you increase lucid dreaming?

Though we can’t say with certainty that Muse S can increase your ability to have lucid dreams, as we’ve seen with some research, a consistent meditation practice can be associated with a higher frequency of lucid dreaming. 

Muse S is designed to be worn during the day and in bed to help you build a consistent and satisfying meditation routine.  During the day, hone your meditation skills with real-time feedback on your brain activity, heart rate, breath, and body movement.  

sleep meditations, lucid dreaming, guided meditation

Before bed get lost in a responsive Go-to-Sleep journey that will help shut off your busy mind and lull you to sleep. Remember, lucid dreams are more likely to occur later in your sleep, so tossing and turning all night will not be beneficial to your lucid dreaming goals. 

References:

  1. Baird B, Mota-Rolim SA, Dresler M. The cognitive neuroscience of lucid dreaming. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2019;100:305323. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.03.008 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6451677/
  2. Voss U, Holzmann R, Tuin I, Hobson JA. Lucid dreaming: a state of consciousness with features of both waking and non-lucid dreaming. Sleep. 2009;32(9):11911200. doi:10.1093/sleep/32.9.1191 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2737577/
  3. Saunders D, Roe C, Smith G, Clegg H. Lucid dreaming incidence: A quality effects meta-analysis of 50 years of research. Consciousness and Cognition. 2016; 43: 197-215. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1053810016301283
  4. Baird B, Riedner BA, Boly M, Davidson RJ, Tononi G. Increased lucid dream frequency in long-term meditators but not following MBSR training. Psychol Conscious (Wash D C). 2019;6(1):4054. doi:10.1037/cns0000176 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6490164/
  5. LaBerge S, LaMarca K, Baird B. Pre-sleep treatment with galantamine stimulates lucid dreaming: A double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study. PLoS One. 2018;13(8):e0201246. Published 2018 Aug 8. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0201246 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6082533/
  6. Stumbrys T, Erlacher D, Schädlich M, Schredl M. Induction of lucid dreams: a systematic review of evidence. Conscious Cogn. 2012;21(3):1456‐1475. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2012.07.003
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